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David Carradine, Actor, Is Dead at 72

David Carradine, an enigmatic actor who never outran the cult status he earned in the 1970s television series “Kung Fu” — even though he went on to star as Woody Guthrie in the film “Bound for Glory” and as the title character in Quentin Tarantino’s twin thrillers, “Kill Bill” Volumes I and II — was found dead on Thursday in a hotel room in Bangkok, where he was filming a new movie. He was 72 and lived in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.

The police in Bangkok are treating the death as a suicide, The Associated Press reported, though Mr. Carradine’s manager of six years, Chuck Binder, said he didn’t believe this was the case.

“He was working, he had a family, he was happy,” Mr. Binder said in an interview Thursday. “He just bought a new car.”

Thai authorities informed the United States Embassy that Mr. Carradine, who was staying in a suite at the Swissotel Nai Lert Park, died either late Wednesday or early Thursday, The A.P. said.
Thai authorities informed the United States Embassy that Mr. Carradine, who was staying in a suite at the Swissotel Nai Lert Park, died either late Wednesday or early Thursday, The A.P. said.

“I can confirm that we found his body, naked, hanging in the closet,” Teerapop Luanseng, a police officer investigating the death, told The A.P.

A busy actor if not always the most discriminating in his choice of roles, Mr. Carradine had hundreds of credits on television and in the movies, and it can be fairly said that acting was in his blood. He was the oldest son of John Carradine, a prolific character actor who was a favorite of the director John Ford, and he had three actor half-brothers, Keith, Robert and Bruce Carradine.

He was in his early 30s and had a decade of credits in the theater, in films and on television behind him when he was cast in “Kung Fu” as Kwai Chang Caine, a half-Chinese, half-American Shaolin monk who had fled China after he killed a man in defense of his master and was on the lam in the 19th-century American West.

The character, a martial arts master and mystical peacenik, was portrayed by Mr. Carradine with a preternatural calm and, in moments of heroic violence — deployed only as a last resort — an explosive grace, a reluctant hero more comfortable spouting vaguely Confucian aphorisms than wreaking physical vengeance on even the most evil foes. The show caught on, especially with young viewers, plugging into the battle-weary spirit of the waning years of the Vietnam War and, in its depiction of the ill treatment of Chinese immigrants, the indignant anguish of the civil rights movement as well (though some Asian-Americans were irked that the role was not given to an Asian actor).

“Kung Fu” made its debut as an ABC movie of the week in 1972, then ran as a series until 1975. And though Mr. Carradine was not proficient in the martial arts himself — he studied them later — the show was influential in the rise of American interest in them and in Eastern philosophy.

In an interview with The New York Times after “Kung Fu” became a hit, Mr. Carradine said that no one was more surprised than he.

“Man, I read that pilot script and flipped!” he said. “But I never believed it would get on TV. I mean, a Chinese western, about a half-Chinese half-American Buddhist monk who wanders the gold rush country but doesn’t care about gold, and defends the oppressed but won’t carry a gun, and won’t even step on an ant because he values all life, and hardly ever speaks? No way!”

He was born John Arthur Carradine in Hollywood on Dec. 8, 1936; he changed his name in his early 20s, at the start of his acting career, because he didn’t want to be known as John Jr. (especially since his father’s birth name was not John but Richmond). He attended several colleges in the San Francisco area, studying music and eventually acting and earning money by painting murals in bars.

He served in the Army from 1960 to 1962 and landed on Broadway in 1964 in “The Deputy.” His break came the next year, when, alongside Christopher Plummer, he played an Inca king, also on Broadway, in “The Royal Hunt of the Sun,” by Peter Shaffer. From there he was cast in the lead of a short-lived television series based on the classic western film “Shane.”

As a young actor, Mr. Carradine had a reputation for being headstrong and difficult. He was also an admittedly freewheeling child of the 1960s, a partaker of psychedelic drugs who had occasional run-ins with the police. He lived with the actress Barbara Hershey during the time when she had changed her name to Barbara Seagull, and they had a son they named Free.

Mr. Carradine was married five times. In addition to his son Free and his half-brothers Keith, Robert and Bruce, he is survived by his wife, Annie; another half-brother, Michael Bowen; five daughters, Kansas, Calista, Amanda, Madeline and Olivia; another son, Max; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The popularity of “Kung Fu” helped Mr. Carradine land two plum starring roles: Woody Guthrie in “Bound for Glory” (1976), a film directed by Hal Ashby that was nominated for a best picture Oscar; and an American acrobat, opposite Liv Ullmann, in “The Serpent’s Egg” (1978), a film directed by Ingmar Bergman that is generally considered among his most problematic. Mr. Carradine also worked with Martin Scorsese — he has a memorable scene as a drunk in “Mean Streets” (1973) — and Walter Hill, in “The Long Riders” (1980), a western in which he, Keith and Robert were cast with other acting brothers, James and Stacy Keach and Dennis and Randy Quaid.

In 2003 and 2004, Mr. Tarantino helped to revive Mr. Carradine’s career with the “Kill Bill” movies, in which he played the elusive mastermind of a gang of assassins who is stalked by a former protégée, played by Uma Thurman. More recently he was busy with a number of film projects that were not as popular. He was making a French action movie, “Stretch,” at the time of his death. Indeed, perhaps his most recognizable recent work was a commercial for Yellow Book, in which he spoofed his role in “Kung Fu.”
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